Admittedly the news that inspired this post has already wrapped fish and is now likely composting. I didn’t want this page lying fallow for too much longer and so offer up this meditation on planting spies.
Maybe 15-year old Jessie Gugig was on to something when she joshed that her Montclair, NJ neighbors Richard and Cynthia Murphy, just arrested on espionage charges, couldn’t have been spies because the latter’s hydrangeas were so lush and well tended.
I live in a suburban community much like Montclair’s: solid old houses, yards whose frontage is edged by sidewalk and landscaped by lawn and enough depth for a satisfying number of flowerbeds. We are gardeners all, enjoying daily walks and taking delight in one another’s combinations of monarda, phlox and campanula. Some of us are annuals-only gardeners; others favor perennials, preferences that can tell you much about a person although the distinction never reaches red state/blue state hubris and animosity.
But all of us garden, and all of us pretty successfully. It’s part of who we are. We are united by this love of digging in the dirt, bringing forth beauty and vegetables. We commiserate over voracious rabbits and trade tips for ridding ourselves of voles. We are thrilled to share a divided hosta or astilbe with a neighbor who’s got a spot of empty shade. Someone once offered me rudbeckia, cheery yet invasive black-eyed Susan that conquers a garden faster than you can say Cuban missile crisis. When I demurred she replied, “Aha, so you’re a true gardener.” We use this earthy pastime as a yardstick of personal preference and acumen, and experience as well. We get to know our neighbors by their gardens. If someone’s good with hydrangeas, that says something about their character.
And so maybe the adolescent Gugig with, her off-hand comment about hydrangeas, intuited something important about commitment to one’s community. Hydrangeas are picky about where they will grow and blossom profusely; they require space, lots of it and a persnickety balance of morning sun and afternoon shade. Only those rooted in their gardens for the long haul take the time to tend hydrangeas, bringing them from nursery pot to mounds of big blowsy plantings whose blossoms are bigger than breakfast grapefruit. Hydrangeas are a magnet to passersby. Anyone wanting to live sub rosa wouldn’t go for hydrangeas but swaths of ubiquitous impatiens, pots of geraniums and petunias. You walk by them, smile and keep moving. Who stops and asks, “What’d you do to those impatiens to make them get so big?”
Gardening is past, present and future. Whenever we garden, a piece of our selves stays behind, mixing in with the decaying leaves of tomorrow’s nourishment. Our gardens are our refuge, the place where the mind wanders free, dreaming dreams of days to come; taking solace from grief, the sun on our back, the earth pliant and accepting. For twenty-six years I have tended my azaleas. Some now span six feet wide and five feet high. Southern gardeners might sniff a “So what?” But I live in Southeastern Michigan. I’ve babied these shrubs as long as I’ve had kids; each spring they return me to my roots, to the place where the earth is red and the word “yall” is regularly conjugated. Whenever I’ve thought about moving the first thought is always, “But what about my azaleas?” Gardening is not for the rootless. Leaving behind my azaleas would mean leaving behind a piece of myself as well – that self compelled to preserve childhood beauty and heritage.
Gardening attaches you: to your neighbors, to the earth, to the place deep within you where God, nature and creativity meet. When you garden you grow to love the earth beneath your feet and by extension the community beyond; if your hydrangeas are stellar it says this about you too.
Perhaps these wonderful plants, flowering in rose, white and Cape Cod blue, their leaves large, their blossoms round as a cheerleader’s pompoms, were the perfect American cover after all.